Teen, family believes she was targeted for possible crime

Published 12:10 am Tuesday, August 30, 2022

SALISBURY — A local teen and her family believes she may have been the target of a potential crime, escaping thanks to the quick thinking and action of a store manager, and her own awareness.

Jenna Pfaff and her husband Jeremy have long been locals in Salisbury, currently living in a house where Jenna grew up. They are raising their own family there now, including a 17-year-old daughter.

That daughter made a nighttime dash to the Subway in the Pilot Travel Center on Peeler Road about three weeks ago, something that Jenna Pfaff said has never given her pause before.

“It did seem to be taking her more time than usual, so I texted her a few times, but she didn’t answer,” Jenna said. She said her husband told her Subway is always busy and she should not worry, but she makes no bones about being a concerned mom.

“I don’t want to be a helicopter mom, but I also want my children to be safe,” she said.

It turned out on that night, she might have had a reason to worry.

It was close to 9 p.m. on Saturday night, Aug. 13, when their daughter got in line for a late dinner, the couple said, and she was the last to order a sandwich before Subway closed. The truck stop and convenience store remained open, though, and that was, the parents say, a gift.

When their daughter finally returned home with her sandwich, her parents were both frightened and angry about the events she relayed. In the end, they were also grateful.

Their daughter said while she was standing in line, she realized she had no cell phone service, and so she began looking around. She saw a man, standing off to the side of the line, who was apparently paying more attention to her than she was comfortable with.

“He did not order a sandwich, but when our daughter when down an aisle to get a drink from one of the refrigerated cases, she realized he was following her,” said Jenna. “She got back in line and he was standing off to the side, watching her. She said he made her so uncomfortable that she gave him the stink eye.”

When their daughter reached the counter and paid for her food, she turned to leave and realized once again the man was following her. She sped up, but told her parents the man “was almost running after her. And when she got to her car in the parking lot, she’d parked down near the end, she realized he had parked right beside her. She said as she got to her car, he approached his car, which had the trunk standing open and she could see some sort of duffle bag inside and a cloth lying on top of the bag.”

Seeing the man begin to approach and understanding something was not at all right, feeling threatened, the teen turned and raced back into the store.

She told the woman at the counter at the convenience store that the man had followed her out of the store, that he was in the parking lot with his trunk open, and that she needed help. The woman behind the register called out for Steven Keith, who works at the store.

“He came out and my daughter was very happy to see a tall, big man come out,” said Jenna. “He heard my daughter, then said ‘OK, let’s go.’ They went to the parking lot, and our daughter was surprised to see the man who had followed her was still there, leaning on the open trunk of his car, like he was waiting for her.”

The couple then said Keith did something they will be forever grateful for.

“Instead of making the man leave, which could have given him the chance to just go around the corner and wait for our daughter, he made the man stay there until she could get in her car, and he gave her time to get well out of sight before letting the guy leave, which gave our daughter time to get home safely.”

Keith told Jenna he himself is the father of daughters, and he often thinks about what he would do to protect his own girls. Jenna and Jeremy both say they are thankful for Keith’s quick thinking, and intend to do something to express their gratitude for helping their child get home safely.

“When she got home and told us the manager had made the guy stay there, I immediately got in my car and drove over there to see if he was still there,” said Jeremy, who is not a small man himself. “He had already left by that time.”

Clearly still reacting to the idea that his daughter was potentially in a dangerous situation, he said he is vigilant whenever he is out with his daughter. “She’s a beautiful girl, and sometimes people pay more attention than I’m comfortable with, but never something to this degree.”

Mom and dad talked about how proud of their daughter they are, saying she is health and fitness conscious, often going for runs in the neighborhood. Until now, they have been comfortable when she is close to home. Now, they are not so sure.

Salisbury Police were not contacted, which, according to a department spokesperson, is less than ideal, though he is grateful the teen is OK.

“Without being involved in any investigation or having anything to go on, I really cannot say if this was a dangerous situation or not,” said Sgt. Russ DeSantis. “It certainly sounds strange, and I understand why she would have been concerned. But in any situation, like this or just when you feel unsafe, it is always, always a good idea to call the police.”

Jenna noted that she has heard from other parents whose teens have been in similar circumstances who have also forgone contacting authorities “because they end up being told, ‘well, he didn’t actually do anything so there is nothing we can do, we can’t arrest him.'”

DeSantis said that is not quite true. While an arrest may not be made, officers can get identification, and vehicle information, which would go into a call report, and that puts someone on the police department’s radar. And calling in the moment can give officers a reason to investigate, whereas reports from third parties, such as media inquiries days after the fact, do not.

A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security, which deals with issues such as human trafficking, said while the scenario does not fit necessarily with how a victim would be forced or coerced into a trafficking situation, it is not outside the realm.

“We see, more often, cases where teens or other victims are groomed, gradually coerced into forced labor, most often by someone they know and sadly, usually trust, but we do see, from time to time, situations where a victim is taken by physical force,” said the representative, who asked that the Post not use his name as he is not an official spokesperson. “Like the police, I cannot say for sure what might have been on this man’s mind, but the way the young woman describes it, it does sound like he was up to no good.”

He said it is important that parents talk with teens about safety, about “that old buddy system — whenever possible, take someone with you,” and about being aware of their surroundings, particularly if they are alone, and noted that cell phones can be a barrier to safety.

“Let’s face it, we all are caught up in looking down at our phones,” he said. “Not just teens, but all of us need to look away from that screen and up at people around us when we are out and about.”

While human trafficking is not a huge problem in North Carolina or in Rowan County, he said it is not non-existent, and he said families need to have those conversations. Parents need to let their children know if someone befriends them but wants them to hide the friendship, if a boyfriend or girlfriend insists on keeping the relationship secret, especially if they are older than the teen, if there are promises of employment (often modeling, movie roles or musical careers) that seem too good to be true but require a child to travel without parental involvement or permission, those should all ring alarm bells.

“Most of us have heard the phrase ‘if it seems too good to be true, it probably is,'” he said, “but children, teens, young adults are often more naive just by virtue of having less life experience, and they can be convinced that they are being grown up by making decisions without mom and dad, which is often quite appealing. It is important to talk with your kids about those kinds of situations. You don’t want to scare your children unnecessarily, but you do need them to be aware of warning signs, and that perhaps not everyone they meet has their best interests at heart.”

The teen in this case initially agreed to talk with the Post about the situation, but in the ensuing days, decided against it, not because she was uncomfortable, Jenna said, but because after Jenna posted about the situation on social media, “she’s tired of talking about it.”

Jenna and Jeremy Pfaff want other parents to be aware, however.

“If our story can help another family, can help other parents talk to their kids, and can help make the community in general more aware, that’s what we hope for,” said Jenna.